Students at work in a computer science class. May 3
Students at work in a computer science class on May 3, 1974.
Image credit: Wellesley College Archives

Majoring in the Future

E.B. Bartels ’10
August 24, 2023

This spring, Erna Schneider Hoover ’48 received a Pioneer in Tech award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Hoover, who spent her career as a professional engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, was honored for creating a computer system that monitored incoming calls to Bell Labs and adjusted the call acceptance rate. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in recognition of her contributions, and the principles of the system are still used today.

Hoover made her mark as a computer technology pioneer, but her career wasn’t one she could have planned for while at Wellesley: The computer science department is only 40 years old, and Hoover just celebrated her 75th reunion. She majored in philosophy at the College and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale, but when she failed to find a tenure-track teaching position, she applied to work at Bell Labs, where her husband was employed. She learned the technology on the job and worked her way up. 

“There were only a handful of vacuum-tube type computers when I came to Wellesley. Only in 1947, when I was a junior, Bell Labs invented the transistor and transformed the world after that,” explains Hoover. “Nevertheless, I think the kind of grounding I had [when I was a student at Wellesley] was really helpful. … The love of learning that one acquires there is the most valuable.”

Even much more recent alums than Hoover have found that technology advances at such a rapid pace that they are working in jobs that hadn’t yet been created when they were students.

“My job did not exist when I graduated from Wellesley,” says Kerry Gaertner Gerbracht ’01, head of fine arts at the tech startup Valence. An art history major, Gerbracht worked for two years as a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, then began handling imaging rights and licensing for the fine arts database Art Resource and later for other companies. She also has experience in fine arts insurance. At Valence, Gerbracht says, she is “bringing a level of transparency to the art world.” “We are bringing the art world up to speed in terms of what’s available digitally—things like certificates of authenticity, information on the origins of pieces—because there are a lot of forgeries out there,” she says. “We can go straight to the source.”

Our jobs are going to keep changing drastically. But Wellesley gave us the foundation to help us make those pivots.

Tracie Lee ’00, executive director of design at the New York Times

N’Mah Yilla-Akbari ’06 double majored in Spanish and Middle Eastern studies at Wellesley and then earned two master’s degrees related to the Middle East. She thought she wanted to be a translator, but found she enjoyed cross-cultural communication even more—not just translating documents but providing additional cultural context, such as the roots of and connotations of words, and insights into behaviors specific to certain parts of the Arab world. Now Yilla-Akbari is on Google’s Responsible Innovation Team, which the company created in 2018 to make sure its artificial intelligence (AI) products are ethical.

“Users are different people from different backgrounds, and they will use products differently based on where they are coming from,” says Yilla-Akbari. “So we figure out how to test products for fairness, not just for quality issues.”

Like Yilla-Akbari, Salwa Nur Muhammad ’06 is working in the expanding field of AI. In April 2020, she founded FourthBrain, which offers online courses that train AI engineers and is on a mission to bring more people into AI. At Wellesley, Muhammad was a psychology major and an education studies minor. Making classes accessible to people no matter where they live was always important to her, and after interning at a school in Uganda she imagined she would be working in education in different parts of the world. She certainly didn’t anticipate the explosion and acceptance of virtual learning during COVID and how that would affect her career. Now people everywhere are seeing the value in online courses and continuous learning, and Muhammad looks forward to watching education continue to evolve. 

“With AI, we’re going to see a lot of transformation,” she says. “Every job that we’re doing right now is going to be transformed, making continued, convenient, and accessible learning all the more important.” 

Heather West ’07 is senior director of cybersecurity and privacy services at the law firm Venable, where she strategizes around security, privacy, artificial intelligence, and data. She majored in computer science and cognitive science, so pursuing a career in technology seemed like a reasonable goal. But she didn’t plan to become what she describes as a “policy and tech translator,” someone who speaks the many different languages involved in technology, society, and AI and who thinks about the impact these fields have on each other. 

“I am so surprised by people that actually are doing exactly what they expected to do,” says West, laughing. “When I was at Wellesley, I really did not know what I wanted to do or planned to do. I knew what classes got me excited. I knew what topics I really was passionate about. … I ended up landing at a nonprofit that works at the intersection of technology and society, which was perfect, but not really a career field that existed until my junior year.”

Tracie Lee ’00 and Tiff Fehr ’00 both work at the New York Times in digital design, where they do programming and design for the online version of the newspaper. They laugh about the coding languages available when they were at Wellesley. 

Fehr works in the Times newsroom as a staff engineer and project editor on the interactive news team. She took a variety of art and computer science courses at Wellesley, ultimately majoring in an early version of the media arts and sciences degree, and says that in the 1990s, the College’s computer science classes were taught using the now-dead variation of the programming language Pascal

“The department rolled over to Java one summer, and that’s when I dropped out of the CS major, because I did not want to have to repeat whole classes to learn the basics of Java the way I’d learned the basics of THINK Pascal,” she says. After graduating, Fehr taught herself new coding languages on the job. “Wellesley taught us to explore and try our best, and then, after that, you’ll get better at it with feedback from the community,” she says. 

Lee, an executive director of design at the Times who majored in studio art and dabbled in computer science at Wellesley, says her college classes encouraged her to think about connections across different systems, and she has applied that kind of interdisciplinary thinking in a variety of fields, from publishing to food to design and tech.

“Our jobs are going to keep changing drastically,” says Lee. “But Wellesley gave us the foundation to help us make those pivots.”